Pirates right-handed pitching prospect J.P. Massey prides himself on being a good teammate, becoming brothers with the players he shares a locker room with.
As he rose his way through the baseball ranks, Massey—who represented the Pirates at the All-Star Futures Game in July—said he saw a challenge to that goal on the horizon. Without knowing Spanish himself, how could he best accommodate the influx of Spanish speakers from Latin America on his journey to the big leagues?
“When you’re around baseball a lot, it’s something you know that’s coming where it’s gonna be a lot of Spanish speakers, and you might not be able to have the cleanest conversations, but you don’t truly understand what that means until you get there,” Massey said.
“You try to talk to someone and you realize like ‘holy crap, there’s no way that we can get this done without having our cell phones [to translate].’”
Learning From Experience
Baseball terms like slider, sinker or home run might translate between English and Spanish enough for players to get by, but J.P. Massey doesn’t want to stop there. He wants to get to know each one of his teammates.
“It’s so difficult sometimes because you’ll meet a guy who might not be the most adept at speaking English, and it creates a barrier to your relationship,” Massey said. “That sucks, being around someone every day and not being able to really get into deep conversation.”
When he isn’t on the mound, then, one of Massey’s biggest goals is to work on his Spanish.
“It’s crazy that even with all those years in school I still don’t know Spanish fluently. So that’s the next step, and we’re working each and every day trying to get that down,” Massey said.
“I try to study on my own, but I don’t think there’s anything better than experience…literally sitting there and trying to talk to your teammates, because I think you start to pick it up a little bit more because it’s more valuable to you, just talking to someone and just trying to learn from each other.”
Massey described how the mutual learning process unfolds.
“It feels so important to me to just be able to have a true conversation with all my teammates. Every day, I sit around with some of my teammates, even on the bench during the game just asking them questions,” Massey said. “If I want to know something I always just throw out the cómo se dice? [how do you say…?]’ We really work through it slowly and sometimes we gotta bring somebody in [to translate], but we always find a way to get the conversation through and I try to learn from it.”
Right now, J.P. Massey said he wants to focus on building vocabulary, but that’s only half the battle. Spanish dialects (like Dominican or Cuban) are notorious for their unique qualities, whether the speed they talk at or the accent they use.
“Some of them talk really fast, some of them talk a little slower, some of them have strong accents that make it difficult to understand, and so it’s all a part of it…It’s fun though, it’s fun to try to listen to each and every one and just see what you can pick up from their sentences and conversations,” Massey said. “Every once in a while I’ll throw my own accent on it, see what I can come up with. We’ll see where I get when I get fluent.”
Asking the Experts
Shortstop Maikol Escotto, who hails from the Dominican Republic, gave his expert opinion on J.P. Massey’s Spanish while speaking through an interpreter.
“He mixes all the Spanishes: sometimes he’s in between Puerto Rican and Cuban,” Escotto said. “[We] will talk about the game, [we] will talk about cars, [we] will talk about life, any topic in general.”
Of course, learning a new language comes with plenty of trial and error. Escotto pantomimed how he and Massey give each other a hard time as they get on the same page.
“In translating between past and present [tenses] he confuses it, sometimes it’s funny,” Escotto said.
Speaking through an interpreter, shortstop Francisco Acuna, of Barranquilla, Colombia, made it clear what Massey’s efforts mean to him.
“There are some players that don’t get as close to the Hispanic players because they don’t speak the same language,” Acuna said. “J.P. is one of the players that gets closer to them. Even if he doesn’t know [a Spanish word] he asks questions and he tries to learn. It’s very good. [We’re] always in good contact, [we] have good communication and [I’m] learning English better by speaking to J.P. too.”
A Budding Superpower
J.P. Massey described those who can speak two languages fluently as having a superpower. He wants to join those ranks too.
“The guys that speak both languages, I always say that they have a superpower, so I try to go through them and have them translate so I can understand it as well,” Massey said.
“The first superpower I want is to be able to dominate on the mound, of course, but the second one is definitely being able to speak both languages, being able to be that guy in the clubhouse that can communicate and have a great time with everyone…That’s when it means a lot more, when you create these bonds with these guys that you’re around every single day and you really want to be able to communicate and become brothers.”